May 20, 2018
The Bronx Historical Society and the Woodlawn Conservancy and Cemetery
Women’s Suffrage and New York City: A Centennial Celebration
May 20, 2018, at Woodlawn
For once, I got to round up all my usual suspects—Nellie Bly, Fannie Hurst, and then the society dames and the influential men who populate the pages of The Suffragents. Bly and Alva Belmont are buried at Woodlawn. Bly’s grave remained unmarked until the 1970s, when the New York Press Club placed a tombstone, and Belmont lies in a mausoleum that, in its miniaturized opulence, rivals Marble House, the mansion her first husband, W.K. Vanderbilt, built for her in Newport, Rhode Island. I wrote a little about it during my visit a couple of weeks ago, to speak at St. George’s School.
Inside the mausoleum,
there was her disintegrating suffrage flag.
Like Belmont, but not nearly so importantly, Bly, the subject of my first book, and Hurst, my second, each have their places in the suffrage cavalcade, Bly’s, I wrote about at length for the Gotham Center for New York City History last November (“When the Suffrage Movement Got Its Makeover On.”) She sounded the fashion and style alarm in the New York World as early as January 1896 (at the national suffrage convention at the Church of Our Father in Washington, DC.) The hopeless taste and self-presentation of women she otherwise admired left her aghast, not to mention the shapeless bags that had started to pass for women’s wear in the era of dress reform.
Bly loved to strut her wasp waist, as you can see in the sketch of her published in the New York World at about the same time as the dress reform craze. Of that kind of liberation, she was having no part. A dress without form, to her mind, was no dress at all. She also dismissed the apparent notion that to present as an intellectual meant to present as a frump. Dress, style, she said, were a weapon and one mostly available to women. The women of the movement should use it. It took another decade or more, but the suffrage campaign’s leaders did come around to seeing the importance of cultivating a stylish image, both in their own appearance and in the leading socialites of the day they recruited as movement activists.
As for Hurst, marching in the 1915 Suffrage Day Parade, she met Frederic Howe, the immigration head for the city, and Marie Jenny Howe, his wife, the suffragist who also founded Heterodoxy. Marie Jenny Howe instantly recruited Hurst into these feminist ranks. Hurst (Back Street, Imitation of Life) was also well known for her award-winning novels and short stories of immigrants and shop girls.
A great joy of the morning was the presence and presentation of Coline Jenkins, the great- great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the great-granddaughter of Harriot Stanton Blatch. Both are buried at Woodlawn with the rest of Coline’s illustrious ancestors.
Above, Coline is posed aside one of the items on display in a mini-exhibiton in the Woolworth Chapel, where the symposium took place. A Ph.D. candidate at Fordham, Jordyn May, introduced the items and provided context for them.
This suffrage-era card was my favorite:
(Aside on Coline: We had the honor of hosting Coline and her daughter, Elizabeth, last August in East Hampton for the re-enactment of the village’s 1913 Suffrage Day Parade.)
At the symposium Sunday, she gave the keynote address, highlighting stories from the lives of not only the more familiar figures of Stanton and Blatch, but also her grandmother, Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, the first US woman to earn a civil engineering degree (from Cornell) and for whom a tunnel-borer is being named. Coline is also very active in the campaign to “break the bronze ceiling in Central Park” with a sculpture of Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the suffrage movement. She reported that the work toward achieving this breakthrough is well underway. The sculptor is to be chosen shortly.
Gerry Russo of the League of Women Voters made an appeal to the audience to vote and be politically aware and active.
And an excellent panel about teaching suffrage at the college, junior college, and university level emphasized the creativity required to make the subject compelling to young learners. The panelists also spoke of the importance—in presenting the history today— of not neglecting its historical intersection with the country’s race and gender struggles.
Vivian Davis, who organized the symposium, gave us a chronological glimpse into the lives of significant women of the Bronx and her hunt to find the borough’s suffrage activists.
I wrapped in some Woodlawn greats with my Men’s League presentation, which you can view, in all its hand-held iPhone glory, here:
The day rounded out with a lecture by Woodlawn’s historian, Susan Olsen, on the “Women of Woodlawn.” I was delighted to encounter Susan again. We met last fall at my presentation on the Suffragents at Woodlawn.
The closing panel focused on how suffrage influenced women in business and featured Leslie Kincaid Burby, Branka Duknic, and Sandra Erikson, and Cynthia Tobar.
And a parting shot, courtesy of Meg McKeon.
All in all, a fine event.